Turn Off the Dumb

I learned, via rehearsals this past week, that some theatre people are starting to treat mentions of the Broadway disaster Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark the same way as we treat MacBeth: don’t say it or you’ll curse your show! My friend B. Michael Peterson (yes, a pretentious first initial-er like me) wrote about this recently as well.


Because at least four actors have been injured in the process of the show, because the show’s official opening has been moved, because two major stars quit the show, and because the show has been nearly canceled several times due to lack of funds and troubles with unions (and honestly, shame on Equity for not raising enough fuss about the conditions of this show!), Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is now seen — apparently — by many theatre practitioners as cursed. Woe is you if you say the title of this show in a theatre! Please refer to it as “The Arachnid Musical.”

Spider-Man actually, at first glance, reminds me a bit more of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which will see it’s centennial this year. This massive industrial accident helped spur the labor movement of the 19th and early 20th century, when 146 women died because they could not get out of the building — they either burned inside, from lack of proper fire exits, or jumped to their death from the 10th floor, because fire trucks’ ladders could only reach the 6th floor. I can only hope that the obviously poor planning and lack of care for human safety involved in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark shames various theatrical unions into working harder for artists’ rights, rather than their paychecks. Working for a living wage is very, very important, but it is equally important to make sure that production staff are taking every precaution during the rehearsal process to ensure actor safety — something Julie Taymor apparently couldn’t care less about. She seems to care more about declaring this musical unlike any others, that in fact it’s so “original” and “creative” (does she know what these words mean anymore?) it can’t even be labeled a musical, that it is something wholly different.

Sidenote: that statement by Taymor is patently ridiculous. Musicals have, since the invention of opera, been about spectacle, and that’s all her show is: spectacle. Don’t believe me? Read about the history of musicals on Wikipedia.

Anyway, learning about the new superstition related to “The Arachnid Musical” got the ol’ wheels turning — are MacBeth and Spider-Man similar? They do have a few things in common.

For example, Shakespeare drastically changed the plot of MacBeth in order to make it more dramatic, and possibly to justify James I’s reign in England. It might have been political commentary on how just and wise James I was, how his family, through martyred Banquo, was virtually clean of original sin. The original story found in Holinshed’s Chronicles described King Duff as a tyrant, a terrible ruler, which MacBeth (who was a good, kind, just, and long-reigning king) and Banquo decided, with a small amount of urging from MacBeth’s wife, to kill to save the kingdom. A very different story from Shakespeare’s play, indeed. There’s also speculation from some scholars that the witches were added as spectacle; and, in the revival during Charles II’s reign, much spectacle was added to the plot, including dancing, music, and Hecate’s speech. The version we have is probably hugely bastardized — full of sound and fury, if you will.

In a similar vein, Taymor has changed the traditional Spiderman plot drastically. While she sticks a bit, in the beginning, to the history of Spiderman through the comics and movies, she has added several pretentious, showy elements, including a “geek chorus,” and the Greek story of Arachne. She then, like a spider on drugs, weaves Arachne’s story into the plot so that Spiderman has to rescue the mythological character from her tormented limbo.

Creative? No, anyone with a theatre history class under their belt can think to add Greek theatre elements to a plot that exists already. And frankly, I don’t see Shakespeare as too much more creative — he was thinking in horror movie terms when he added those witches. It was a shock tactic, like Taymor’s glib use of aerial stunts.

Both plays have lengthy histories of hurting the people involved, particularly Orson Welles’ infamous Voodoo Macbeth, which faced nothing but problems throughout the rehearsal period. Again, however, it looks like the problems stemmed not from any bad luck attached to the production, but from the focus on spectacle. I will say, however, that I think Welles was full of himself, but I much more appreciate his motives — promoting black actors, making a political statement — than Taymor’s.

Both Taymor and Shakespeare are revered as theatrical visionaries. Taymor has yet to be canonized like Shakespeare, but I think The Lion King is well on its way.

Although that’s about where the similarities end, that’s quite enough for me to believe Spider-Man might be cursed. While MacBeth has been pretty good to me over the years, I don’t think I would ever take on a production like Spider-Man. Not because I’m afraid to work with that level of stage tech — I just finished working on a show that involved two (highly well-trained and experienced!) aerialists — but because there doesn’t seem to be much point to having that many stunts, other than jealousy of other, more successful productions like Phantom of the Opera. In fact …

According to the New York Post, Bono began composing Spider-Man after Andrew Lloyd Webber joked, “I’d like to thank rock musicians for leaving me alone for 25 years – I’ve had the theater all to myself”; Bono and Taymor “decided to give Andrew a little competition”.

That’s from the Wikipedia article. It’s like Taymor is saying, “Oh really, Andrew? You’ve got a musical with one aerial stunt. We’re going to make a ROCK OPERA CIRCUS THINGY with 27 aerial stunts! Neener Neener!”

No one will ever know what Shakespeare’s motives were, exactly, for writing MacBeth, and considering the cat-fights Elizabethan playwrights often got into (writing lengthy tracts about how each other’s plays sucked, staking territory battles over theatres, stealing each other’s material), I wouldn’t doubt that “the Bard” had less than purely creative motives behind much of his writing. And I wonder if it is truly better for a play to feature flowery language instead of aerial stunts and dance numbers with hundreds of chorus girls — I feel like they might both be the artists showing off.

But I think, truly, “The Arachnid Musical” is a cursed show for our times. The money-grubbing producers are pushing an obviously under-developed and dangerous show through, and blaming it on the fact that the show wasn’t tested on easily-wowed regional audiences (because Shrek: The Musical did so well after being tested on our very own audience in Seattle). Theatrical unions are allowing the show to be treated as such, and allowing the actors to be put in life-threatening situations. Reviewers are basically saying, “Well, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be!” And I strongly suspect audiences are flocking to the theatre in the hopes of seeing an actor die on stage over the course of the show.

So just don’t talk about it in a theatre. Maybe if we ignore the reasons for Spider-Man’s failure and throw a wall of superstition around it, it can’t hurt us.

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